To understand Garrett Rooker’s upside, consider that the UBC Thunderbirds quarterback was 19-of-25 for 305 yards and one touchdown last week and coach Blake Nill insists he is “still getting his groove back.”
Rooker helped UBC to a 25-10 win over the host Regina Rams to kick off the Canada West football season, and he will be at the controls Saturday (1 p.m.) for the home opener at Thunderbird Stadium against the Calgary Dinos.
There was doubt for some time that the third-year pivot would be seeing game action at this early juncture in the season after the 6-foot-3, 205-pound League City, Tex. native suffered a posterior hip dislocation with a fracture during an Oct. 22 match-up last season at Thunderbird against the Saskatchewan Huskies.
“He’s a little rusty,” Nill said of Rooker, the 2021 Canada West rookie of the year who has now thrown for 3,479 yards and 15 touchdowns in his 15 career starts with UBC.
“Last week, he missed a couple of throws in the end zone. He can make those throws and as his confidence becomes less and less of an issue, he’s going to be great.”
This is a UBC team that feels it can make plays in all facets all over the field this year. They are openly talking about contending for a Vanier Cup national title. They have had players such as offensive linemen Theo Benedet and Giovanni Manu pull out of this most recent CFL Draft and return to school with that specifically in mind. Nill has said that the pair are getting NFL interest as well.
The T-Birds remained at No. 9 in this week’s U Sport national rankings. Saskatchewan is the top Canada West team at No. 3. The Laval Rouge et Or are No. 1.
Nill has seen up close what chasing a Vanier Cup takes. He started out as a head coach with the Saint Mary’s Huskies in 1998 and did a stint with Calgary before moving into UBC. Nill has coached in eight Vanier Cups and been on the winning side three times, including in his inaugural year with the T-Birds in 2015. That was UBC’s fourth Vanier Cup and first since 1997.
“We have to keep moving in a direction where we are working hard, we’re emotionally invested and we’re making good decisions,” Nill said. “That’s a tough part with this modern day youth, that trying to keep them focussed on the fundamental skills needed for success.
“They have aspirations but they’ve never really proven it. Right now, it’s just a vision. I’m trying to direct them with what has worked with me in the past. There are definitely good indications that it’s working but it’s a work in progress.”
Calgary features 16 B.C. natives and the team is coming off a 33-9 setback to the visiting Alberta Golden Bears last week. Nill has been warning his crew about sleeping on the Dinos all week. Calgary has dominated the head-to-head match-up over the longer term. UBC’s 39-29 win in Calgary last season ended a 10-game Dino winning streak in the series that dated back to 2016.
“In Canada West, any team can be defeated by any other team on any given weekend depending on who shows up committed and who doesn’t,” Nill said.
Third-year kicker Kieran Flannery-Fleck was 6-for-6 on field goals against Regina, with the longest of 38 yards. Third-year running back Isaiah Knight had 20 carries for 100 yards to go with three catches for 40 yards.
The B.C. Lions are the presenting sponsor for the game and anyone attending receives a link to a $20 ticket to the Lions’ Oct. 6 game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. As well, the Lions’ merchandize truck will be at Thunderbird Stadium, as will the Lions dance team.
Saturday is the first of three straight at home for the T-Birds. The Manitoba Bisons are next up, with a Sept. 16 visit to Thunderbird Stadium. The Canada West Hardy Cup semifinals are set for Nov. 4. The Vanier Cup is Nov. 25 in Kingston, Ont., hosted by Queen’s.
UBC finished 7-5 last season and lost 23-8 to Saskatchewan in the Canada West Hardy Cup championship game. They were 3-4 in 2021 after falling 39-17 to Saskatchewan in the Hardy Cup semifiinals.
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